I was not a rebellious teenager. I just never really went through that whole phase. To my sheltered, straight, white, male, middle-class mind, authority figures were basically there to look out for us, to gently guide us away from potential mistakes and shield us from wrongdoers. Sure, these authority figures sometimes made mistakes, but governments, teachers, parents, and police were essentially The Good Guys.
It’s an illusion that’s been increasingly hard to maintain over the years, and now, at age 25, I find myself more inhabited by the spirit of teenage rebellion than I ever was at 15. Watching the British government tear apart our health system, or the American police militarize against ordinary citizens, it’s pretty hard to support authority for authority’s sake. I’m beginning to perceive the cracks that were always there, to peek through the sheen to the grime beneath.
It’s probably for the best, then, that I only recently found my way to Jet Set Radio, instead of jumping on board during its initial Y2K release on the Dreamcast. The game’s mobs of colorful, roving rollerbladers—just looking to tag their turf in the face of increasingly heavy-handed authorities—would probably have seemed juvenile and immature to my pretend-mature younger self.
Now they’re just fucking cool.
I’m a member of the GGs, locked in turf war on the streets of Tokyo with some appropriately absurd rival gangs. There’s Poison Jam, whose kaiju-inspired onesies couldn’t be less threatening if they tried. The Love Shockers are the token female punk gang, while the Noise Tanks were clearly the result of someone’s hazmat cyborg fever dream.
They’re my rivals, but they’re not my enemies. That would be the comically militaristic police force, throwing everything from attack dogs and SWAT troops, to paratroopers and tanks at me—all within the first few missions. This shit escalates fast. For the simple act (well, crime, I GUESS) of laying down some sweet rollerblade moves and leaving my tag on every flat surface I can find, I’m bombarded with bullets, tear gas, and missiles, hounded to death by a glorified army. It’s the sort of police brutality that’ll give you pause for thought even in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, a paean to the sentiment that your average law enforcement agency is essentially an urban military, sights trained on the populace by default.
Normally I’d question whether busting out a spray can is really the best way to stick it to the man, but when the man is clearly getting this worked up about it, the results are hard to argue with. A pair of skates and a can of paint make me the city’s most wanted, and only because the powers that be have made it so.
I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack yet. Has gaming produced a better one yet? It’s hard to imagine. Hip hop, rock, dance, pop, trip hop and more blend into one effortless melange, a trippy, upbeat celebration of music and movement. There’s enough variation to keep things interesting, enough repetition to give you the chance to find your favorites. It’s cool in that way that only early noughties Japan knew how to be, an unholy hybrid of punk and techno that somehow manages to sound like neon.
When all else fails (and occasionally it does), this is what the game has to fall back on. I’m not sure my milquetoast teenage taste could have handled it at the time, but now, 15 years on, I’m more than ready for Jet Set Radio’s polyphonic mess.
Sure, the gameplay occasionally (read: often) leaves much to be desired. The difficulty, for example, begins to ramp up before you’ve even learnt the basic mechanics. The ‘battle’ levels are an underwhelming exercise in frustration, and the game has a nasty habit of spawning you far from the paint cans you need to actually begin playing. The UI is cryptic, controls are flaky, and the camera is an unholy abomination. But despite those persistent frustrations, this is a game that’s just impossible to hate.
It exudes youthful energy and rebellion. It’s a beautiful celebration of doing dumb shit just because you can and someone in a suit told you not to. As I watch more and more of the people around me grow up and put on those suits themselves, it’s the sort of sentiment I hold close to my heart.